The Macedonian city of Ohrid may be one of Europe’s most talked-about tourist destinations, but its famed lake is still a picture of serenity
Hristo the boatman, aka ‘Elvis’, doesn’t lack confidence. “I am the outstanding man in Macedonia,” he informs us, standing on the edge of Ohrid’s harbour, just above his little metal boat. “I am born to rock. Some guys from Hollywood came recently and told me I should be an actor. I’m not Brad Pitt or Mel Gibson, but I’m good at being me.”
In the evenings, being Hristo involves dressing up as Elvis to take passengers out for gentle tours of Ohrid’s beautiful lake, powered only by a tiny outboard motor. He’s been taking tourists out from the main harbour on his traditional kajche boat for 32 years, and has been an Elvis fan since he was a 14-year-old listening to the Voice of America radio station. “When I first heard Elvis, it was like hearing a voice from the depth of the ocean,” he says.
Guys like Hristo are the main men in Ohrid, a city of 40,000 people that is defined in many ways by the water that it sits on. The 30km-long Lake Ohrid is one of the deepest and oldest in Europe, and home to more than 200 endemic species. It has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1979, but the main thing that will strike you is simply its beauty, with tree-covered foothills and valleys sloping down to water so clear that it’s said that you can see the bottom up to a depth of 21m.
The lake provides a gorgeous backdrop to just about everything that happens here, and it’s helped Ohrid gain a reputation as one of Europe’s up-and-coming destinations, with Lonely Planet naming it in its top 10 cities to visit in 2017.
It’s a simple place to explore because, aside from the churches and the imposing 10th-century fortress overlooking the city, most of the magic here happens by the water. From the old town, with its narrow streets and little shops selling pearls and woodcarvings, a rickety wooden boardwalk takes you beneath a limestone cliff to a stretch of tiny pebbled beaches, tree-shaded jetties and restaurants with terraces jutting out across the lake. A typical afternoon here might take you to the restaurant at Potpes beach for a Skopsko beer, some spicy pindjur aubergine dip and a plate of fried plashica, a tiny local fish whose scales are also used as a key ingredient in the emulsion that coats Ohrid’s famed pearls.
Then you might wander further along the lakeside for a boat ride with Ljupcho Masov, who looks like Macedonia’s answer to Sean Connery, and who has been taking tourists out for the past 35 years. Recently joining him for the ride is cute dog Max, who pokes his head over the bow of the little boat as Ljupcho drives, looking cool in battered denim and a captain’s hat. Ljupcho lives by the water on this part of the lake with his son Ivo, who at 21 has been working the boats for almost six years.
“This little jungle is my spot,” says Ljupcho, gesturing at the jetty strewn with fishing nets and trees shading his little boat. “It’s my happy place.”
“This little jungle is my spot. It’s my happy place.”
At the far end of this stretch, up some steep stone steps, is the Church of St John at Kaneo, a Byzantine structure that perches on the rocks over the lake. It’s as spectacular a location for a church as you’ll see, and it made the cover of National Geographic magazine’s 100 Places That Will Change Your Life special issue last year.
That this is the defining image of Ohrid makes sense. The city once had 365 churches, one for every day of the year, and though the number is smaller today, there are still multiple red-brick Byzantine churches across the city – so much so that it is still often referred to as ‘the Jerusalem of the Balkans’. Today, there’s also a lively Muslim part of town, home largely to ethnic Turks and Albanians, where a mosque sits happily opposite a Byzantine church.
“Everyone gets on here,” says Antonio Ristevski, a local who has been a tour guide for 10 years, and was the 32nd of the now 600 people in Macedonia with guiding licenses. “In more than 2,400 years here, we’ve had many layers of civilisation, from the Ottomans to the Venetians and the Communists. It gives the city a soul, and it means that people are very open.”
That openness definitely extends to tourists, and there’s great hospitality everywhere. There may be European destinations with more sophisticated hotels and restaurants, but there can’t be too many with friendlier hoteliers and restaurateurs, or offering better value, especially given the location.
The welcome is summed up one afternoon, when we’re lost looking for one of Ohrid’s traditional boat-makers. We’re approached by an old, slightly frail man who, without speaking, opens his hand and offers us a bunch of fresh cherries. It seems to sum up this generous-spirited place, where the friendliness seems wholly authentic, even if tourists are undoubtedly its economic lifeline.
While history, culture and people are a large part of the charm, a trip to Ohrid is really about exploring the lake, which is surrounded by little villages and bays. Most visitors take the day-long boat trip to the St Naum monastery, which brings you 29km south across the water, passing little bays and settlements along the way.
The monastery is another gorgeous piece of Byzantine architecture, with peacocks roaming freely across its terracotta roofs. With boatloads coming to see it, it’s definitely touristy, but charmingly so. Down the steps from the monastery, Restaurant Ostrovo (restoranostrovo.com.mk) is a buzzing institution, with its rushing waiters, home-style cooking and groups of Balkan tourists bursting into song as the folk band plays. Many of the seats are in shady cabanas overlooking a lush lakeside spring, with crystal-clear green water, which you can tour in little rowing boats.
While Naum can be hectic, it’s easy to get away from crowds around Lake Ohrid, whether renting a bike or car, or just wandering round the lakeside. A drive or healthy bike ride away, Trpejca is a charming former fishing village that rises gently into the surrounding hills and has been dubbed ‘the Macedonian St Tropez’. And locals tend to agree that Ljubanista beach, 25km south of Ohrid, is the best on the lake; its golden sands and turquoise water are overlooked by the looming Galičica mountain, the highest point in the national park of the same name.
And if you’ve had enough of relaxing and watching the gentle rhythms of the lake, you can take to the sky for a different view. Fly Ohrid (flyohrid.com)is a paragliding company set up in 2008 by a group of local paragliders, led by Kristijan Temelkoski, a 33-year-old who is part of the Macedonian national paragliding team and has won world cup events. Last season, the company took more than 1,500 people up for tandem paraglides, many of them taking off from high in Galičica national park and landing just behind the Ljubanista beach.
“It’s getting better every year, as more and more people discover this place,” says Temelkoski, who is a ski instructor in the winter and also runs paragliding training courses after the summer season ends.
While it’s too windy on the day we plan to go flying, Temelkoski and his partner Boris Sazdov drive us up a dramatic winding road to the takeoff point, near the Magaro peak at 2,420m above sea level. From here, you can see the whole span of the lake, with its many bays and towns. It’s a magical view, even if we’re disappointed we can’t run down the slope and into the sky.
After another drive around the lake, we find ourselves back in Ohrid, at the lakeside terrace of Kaj Kanevche (restaurantkajkanevce.wixsite.com). As we dive into a light lunch of sarma – a tasty Macedonian dish of rice, minced meat and spices wrapped in cabbage leaves – we hear a sharp call, interrupting the serenity.
It’s Hristo, doing an Elvis-inspired jig on the bow of his boat. We wave, and he continues on his way, chugging gently towards one of the world’s most spectacular churches. It’s just another afternoon on the lake.